Free Internet access and mobile telephony is on the way. It’s all thanks to old-fashioned analogue TV, or, more precisely, the amount of the electromagnetic spectrum released by the switch from analogue to digital TV. What was once a geeky pipe dream is now a likelihood. So what exactly is it?
With the replacement of analogue TV by digital, much more has changed than mere picture and sound quality, or the ability to deliver 3D pictures. Even though there are many more digital channels than there ever were analogue ones, they need only about half the amount of the spectrum previously used by analogue TV. The reason digital bands need much less spaceis because channels don’t bleedlike analogue ones. Due to the possibility of interference between one analogue channel and another, the amount of bandwidth allocated to each had to be wider than was strictly necessary. It’s a bit like the hard shoulder on each side of a highway. Vehicles don’t need it most of the time, but it’s there just in case. In analogue TV terminology, the equivalent of the hard shoulder is called the guard band. The total amount of guard band freed-up by the switchover is referred to as white space. As much as 70% of the spectrum used by analogue TV was made up of white space. Digital TV doesn’t have any significant bleed problem, so it doesn’t need this extra bandwidth.
The amount of spectrum released is enormous. Not surprisingly, the TV operators wanted to hold onto it for their own future uses. Recently, however, in the US the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided that most of the white space would be made freely available to everyone. Any operator could apply to use it without having to pay a huge sum for a license. The FCC holds no sway over the rest of the world, but since much technological innovation is kick-started in the US, the decision will profoundly impact most of the developed world.
It’s still uncertain what all the freed-up spectrum will be used for. One proposal gaining traction is what’s termed Super WiFi. Unlike the area of the spectrum used by current WiFi, which limits coverage to a few hundred meters, signals using some of the freed white space frequencies can travel kilometers. In theory, a single mast could provide coverage to an entire town or city suburb. This has huge implications not just for current WiFi, but more significantly, for mobile telephony. If an entire town is effectively a free high-speed wireless hotspot, then with a suitable phone, anyone in town can make free calls through services like Skype and Google talk. No one within the hotspot would want or need a traditional cell phone. Fixed line phones would be amusing curiosities.
When this happens, it will be game-changing. It’s easy to see why the mobile phone networks among others are not happy. They spent billions for their licenses and in the not too distant future, many of their customers may start to disappear. Their concern is understandable. It’s a bit like owning a chain of bookshops, then, one day, a free library opens beside each one of them. Maybe it’s not fair, but there’s a valid argument that says mobile phone companies have over-charged users for years and have easily recouped their investments. One thing is sure: few users will shed tears for them.
Some experts predict that within five years WiFi, as we now know it, will be replaced by Super WiFi. Some even predict that the only mobile telephone operators around will be those offering versions of VOIP telephony. Google’s development of the Android system seems inspired. It’s not inconceivable that in a few years, Google could be one of the major new global mobile phone operators.
Many technological giants have flung their hats into this ring. Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips and others have all set up what’s called The White Space Coalition. Even though they compete in many areas, they all share the ambition that the white space should be harnessed to deliver high-speed broadband Internet access.
Of course, politics will intervene. Governments’ compulsion to interfere and control will lead to national interestobstacles. Nevertheless, the FCC’s decision in the US has global significance. It means that the tide has turned. There will be great opportunities for clever entrepreneurs. The best thing they can do is find those opportunities and lead the revolution. No doubt, the smart ones are already doing just that.
Guest post by D. Offer, owner of the Facebook login application writes. Chit Chat is a Facebook chat messenger that allows users to Facebook message from their desktop.
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